Saturday, 31 January 2015

Why There Is a Witch-Hunt Against Our Cars

(From the archives: April 20th, 2004)

Anyone who owns one knows that the car, overall, is a blessing to humanity. Many people would not be able to travel easily between home and work without cars. Parts of ordinary life like shopping would be far more difficult and time-consuming. Many social and recreational trips would not be worth doing without the car.

Yet, the politically hip like to demonize our cars – and us who drive them. Cars, they say, cause serious and perhaps even catastrophic harm to the environment. They rant about lives lost through accidents. They yell at us to SLOW DOWN! and to use less fuel. They tell us that we are causing congestion, which will lead to gridlock before long.

And the car-haters are aggressively rampant today. In Britain, they have made many roads narrower and less straight than they used to be. They put speed-bumps, chicanes and bigger obstacles in our way. They festoon roads with signs reminding us of speed limits, and they place cameras to catch us out and punish us if we go too fast. Even though many of those limits were not there ten or even five years ago.

They paint large areas of road with "no-go" lines. They re-design junctions to reduce traffic flow. They close strategically important roads for road works for weeks on end. They inexorably raise fuel taxes, already the highest in Europe. They sharply increase fines for motoring offences. They charge people large amounts of money to drive into central London. And they want to extend these "successful" charges to other places.

This is not just a British problem. In Holland, for example, speed-bumps and chicanes are in evidence as well. In Belgium too, traffic snakes along roads that used to be wide and straight. In Canada a few years ago, speed cameras became such a hot issue that a provincial election was won on a pledge to remove them.

As far back as the 1970s, there were anti-car voices to be heard among the political class. They had their successes, too – drink-driving laws being perhaps the most obvious. But it was about 1993 that the anti-car propaganda machine really got going. Our TV screens showed (staged) pictures of rural roads chock-a-block with cars. Of traffic jams in foggy weather, complete with smoking exhaust-pipes. Of the aftermaths of accidents. It was hard, even then, to avoid thinking that we drivers were being set up.

Organizations that should have defended us, like the Automobile Association, abdicated their responsibility. Worse, they even took part in the witch-hunt, blaming us for destroying the environment by driving our "gas guzzlers.” No-one was on our side. No-one seemed to want to ask the important questions, like: Whose environment is it anyway?

In what was then a moderately open society, the car-haters could not get away with simply declaring our cars to be illegal. So they had to promote alternatives. They extolled the virtues of public transport and of the bicycle. They spent lots of money (our money) on trams, buses and new and improved bicycle paths. Meanwhile, they did anything they thought they could get away with to make life difficult for us car drivers. With the effects so painfully apparent today.

As an environment for the human beings who use them, though, cars are vastly superior to public transport. Consider: Your car takes you directly from the start of your journey to its end. Public transport usually doesn't; that walk to the train (and at the other end) can make a huge difference to your total journey time. Your car goes when you are ready to go; you don't have to wait for it. Public transport goes (when it goes) according to a schedule set by someone else, which probably doesn't suit you. And you have to hang around waiting for it, often worrying that it will be late, or won't arrive at all.

Your car keeps you dry and warm; bus stops and station platforms don't. In your car, you have space and privacy. You can be alone if you want, or you can be with those you want to be with. In public transport, you are forced into a crowd of random people, most of whom you don't know from Adam.

The seats in most cars are far more comfortable than the seats in buses. The seats in the best cars are luxurious, easily nicer than first class on the train. A well-maintained car travels quickly, smoothly, quietly. In contrast, trains rattle and sway, and buses grind along slowly and noisily.

To drive a fast car, or to relax and ride in a comfortable car well driven, are positive pleasures. Short of taking off in an aeroplane, there are no such pleasures to be found in public transport.

There is more. The car can carry loads quite easily; on public transport, it is difficult to take anything you cannot easily carry on your own. Most parents find it much easier to take their children wherever they need to go by car, rather than by public transport. Public transport is vulnerable to strikes. People get mugged on public transport.

It is true that for certain journeys – such as into and around the centres of big cities – public transport is often faster than the car. This extra speed may, depending on the journey, outweigh the privacy, comfort and convenience advantages of the car. Limited parking at the destination may also make the car less attractive. There seems to be a certain population density, beyond which cars cease to work well.

In places where the road infrastructure is outdated or neglected, the car is at an additional disadvantage. London, for example, suffers particular traffic problems because of its history as a series of villages, which gradually linked up. This means that most of the main roads go through the congested old village centres.

The urbanites that want to force us to use public transport, however, may be missing an important point. If cars and big cities don't mix well, consider the possibility that it is the city, not the car, which is reaching the end of its useful life-span. Consider the possibility that the future of human societies lies in sensible-sized communities surrounded by space, rather than in cramming large crowds of people into small areas. In such societies, it is private transport, not public, which best meets people's requirements. And the best form of private transport we have developed so far is the car.

Some admit the shortcomings of public transport, and promote the bicycle instead. Now the bicycle, in its place, is a fine means of transport. It has some of the same convenience advantages as the car. It is healthy. It is quick over short distances. It is an excellent means of recreational travel, going fast enough to get from place to place, yet slowly enough to let you enjoy what lies between. I know all this, because I once went coast-to-coast across North America by bicycle.

But the bicycle has its problems too. Cycling is unpleasant in the wet. It does not work well in snow or ice. It does not work well when you are injured, or when you are feeling below your best. Longer journeys can simply take too long. Regular journeys can be a boring grind. And, as people get older and their bodies stiffer, bicycling becomes less and less attractive. The bicycle can never be a substitute for the car.

If anyone is to accept any sacrifices in speed, comfort, privacy or convenience in the way they lead their lives, there must be good, objective, easily understandable reasons. It must be clear that the benefits outweigh the sacrifices. So let's look at some of the arguments used to promote today's anti-car policies.

First, pollution and the environment. Fifteen or so years ago, most cars ran on petrol containing lead. Some of that lead found its way into the atmosphere. Today, lead-free petrol and catalytic converters have reduced pollution from cars by an order of magnitude in comparison to then.

You might have thought, then, that car makers and car drivers deserved congratulations for this achievement. But no. Cue the demon, carbon dioxide. I'm not going to repeat the arguments here, but the scares about runaway global warming caused by car-emitted carbon dioxide are just that – scares. There is no substance to them. They are hot air.

Second, accidents and speed limits. In the very week in which I wrote this, there was yet another propaganda campaign, softening us up for yet more reductions in speed limits. The media yelled things like: "A million people killed on the roads every year.” "Road accidents will be the third biggest cause of preventable deaths by 2020.” "You are much less likely to kill someone at 20mph than at 30.” Anyone like to guess what the punch line is going to be?

Now, accidents are regrettable. I am not against programs to make roads genuinely safer, for example by better segregation of traffic travelling in opposite directions. But we have to keep perspective. All kinds of transport have inherent risks. There were transport accidents long before there were cars. Today's cars, mile for mile, are far safer than earlier forms of transport.

And recent evidence shows that all the speed limits and obstacles to make us drive slower have not reduced British accident rates. Indeed, the amount of absolute-idiot driving, the kind that causes fatal accidents – like overtaking on blind bends – has increased in the last few years. I think I understand why this may be. For the obstacles and speed limits designed to slow us down, so-called "traffic calming,” actually have psychologically the opposite effect. When I come to an obstacle in the road, or see a speed limit sign that wasn't there before, I don't feel calmed. Instead, I want to wring the necks of those responsible. I suspect I am by no means alone in this reaction. And it seems obvious that an angry driver will be less predictable, and so less safe, than a relaxed and happy one.

It seems to me that the costs of more and more draconian limits and regulations far outweigh the dubious benefits. I myself have driven for more than thirty years, with only one accident going forwards – and that didn't injure anyone. I drive at sensible speeds; why should I go any slower than I did thirty years ago?

Third, fuel. That the oil is running out is simply false. That a lot of the cheapest oil is in politically troublesome parts of the world is, unfortunately, true. So, research into and development of new fuels for private transport is a valuable activity, one to which I think all drivers should be happy to contribute – instead of paying petrol taxes. In 20 years' time perhaps, our cars might run on fuels that can be produced using electrical energy, which in turn can be produced from nuclear or large-scale solar power. We could thumb our noses at the doomsayers then!

I also find the oft-intoned mantra, that we should slow down to save fuel, strange. As anyone with a trip computer in their car knows, the journeys, which use the least fuel per mile, are those with the highest average speeds. At an average speed of 60mph, my car does 50 percent more miles per gallon than at an average of 30. If saving fuel really was the priority, road-builders would be seeking to increase speeds, not to decrease them. There would be a safety benefit too; for the fastest roads are also the safest ones.

Fourth, congestion. Yes, congestion is a problem in big cities; all the more reason to live outside the city. In the suburban area in which I live, there is some congestion. But it stems from three main sources. One, fixed obstacles like railway level crossings. Two, inconsiderate parking, which makes what should be a two-way flow of traffic into an alternating one-way flow. Three, the school run. It is fairly easy, by choosing your route carefully and displacing your working day a little, to avoid two of these three sources of congestion.

Ah, say the car-haters, suburban – and main road – congestion may not be so bad today, but it's getting worse, isn't it? And, for once, they are right. It is getting worse in south-east England, because the government is cynically trying to cram more and more people into a tiny corner of the country. While failing to upgrade the road system to match. Congestion is also getting worse because of the hindrances to our progress, which they are placing on the roads. There is one underlying reason for the worsening road congestion; bad politics.

So, what is really going on? What lies at the root of all this anti-car propaganda and all these bad policies? I have a suggestion to make. Could it be, perhaps, that the witch-hunt against our cars – and against us – is just what it appears, a witch-hunt? Could it be, in essence, religious persecution?

Our cars are not just fast, comfortable, convenient and private. They are also an expression of our individuality and independence. But many among the political class hate those of us, who value our individuality and independence. For what they want is to control people. They hate economic success, and those who earn it. Like the mediaeval church, they hate human progress. They hate pleasures. And they persecute.

This idea, that what we car drivers are suffering is persecution, can explain a lot. It explains why the car-haters do not care that their arguments involve lies (like, saying that driving slower uses less fuel). It explains why it cuts no ice to tell our persecutors that cars don't cause global warming. For they aren't interested at all in scientific reality. For them, the environment is just a convenient rationalization to hang their persecution on. We might as well have tried to tell their forebears that it's chemically impossible for communion wine to become Jesus' blood.

It explains why they are so insistent on slowing us down. They hate human progress in general; but that extends to our physical progress too. It explains why they put up so many speed limit signs and cameras; it's psychological warfare, forever reminding us that they're out to get us if we step out of line. It explains, too, why they assault us in so many different ways, all at once. Their agenda is to make our driving lives as unpleasant as they can. They are out to punish us for being individual and independent in our choice of transport.

The first step towards ending any persecution is to recognize it for what it is. As the persecution gets worse, that recognition, I think, is becoming increasingly easy. And car owners and drivers are, in population terms, a very significant constituency indeed. Let enough of them understand what is being done to them, let enough of them get angry enough about it, and we may even have the makings of a revolution.

Let's drive on towards the Revolution!

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